After he delivered the dagger, the 30-foot pull-up 3-pointer that gave the Celtics a secure 4-point lead with 1:29 left in overtime, Kyrie Irving growled, and then a bright smile emerged behind his thick beard as he screamed “Let’s go!” to the raucous TD Garden crowd.
He’s amassed his share of signature moments in his year-plus with the Celtics, but that may have been the best and most poignant. Irving was especially demonstrative on this Christmas Day, smiling, talking, and showing an exuberant effort.
He chased offensive rebounds, darted for steals, and played resistant post defense even though he was undersized. Irving set the tone, playing as a leader in the Celtics’ thrilling 121-114 overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even though it was just game No. 33, it was nearly a must win for the Celtics. They had to re-establish themselves as Eastern Conference contenders, and a nationally televised win over the 76ers could only enhance their perception and boost their confidence.
Irving exemplified the Celtics’ desire to regain their prowess and swagger. The Celtics were the better team for most of the 53 minutes. And when they slipped, Irving made sure to rescue them with acrobatic shots and picturesque 3-pointers.
With 6-foot-8-inch Jimmy Butler, one of the league’s best defenders, chasing him around, Irving circled, scooted, and flashed past Butler for tough shots, including the game-tying floater to force overtime.
“Kyrie hit a tough shot, that is what he does,” Butler said. “That is why he is the player he is. He came up late and what can you do about that?”
After the game, Irving talked to the national broadcast on the floor and then approached the tunnel with a gracious smile, with fans chanting “Kyrie, Kyrie.” Usually Irving slaps a few hands and rushes to the locker room. This time he slowed, showing appreciation for the adulation.
“I told my teammates, I came in the locker room and said, ‘My family’s here to watch me play, I got like 20-plus people from my family here, so I’m acting up,’ ” he said. “You guys have no idea. I’m so excited. I don’t really get a chance to have my family all in one place. Most of my family, for that matter. It means a lot to me. They really haven’t seen me play since I was like a kid. Everybody’s here. My aunts, my uncles, my friends. It just meant a lot to me.”
It was a little more than a year ago in the Madison Square Garden locker room that Irving made headlines by saying he didn’t view Christmas as a holiday. It’s not that he’s completely changed his thinking, but playing in front of family, especially for such a significant game, held meaning to Irving and why he appeared especially engaged.
“They were here [Sunday] against Charlotte as well and I came out just cooking,” he said. “Like it don’t even matter what the Hornets do or the Sixers do, I’m here to play for my family and my teammates. Christmas spirit. I missed it. My sacrifice not being around my family as much, not having the time to invest with them, I’m glad I had this time, this moment for Christmas.”
Tuesday marked Irving’s first 40-point, 10-rebound game. He finished with four offensive rebounds along with three assists and a steal. He played with vigor on both sides of the ball. He brought a playoff intensity into a regular-season game.
“Come out and have fun, you know, enjoy being out there to be with my teammates,” he said. “You know, high-level game. Always talk about being on those big stages – just so much fun. It’s just competition at its highest. I mean, I love going against the best so it’s not too often you get to do that in the regular season, especially on a holiday like Christmas.”
For the first time in a while, it truly looked like the Celtics were having fun. It wasn’t a blowout win over an overmatched opponent or being forced to rally after falling behind 20 points. This was a high-level game against a quality opponent, better than the Hornets.
Philadelphia came to Boston with the intention of stomping the Celtics and erasing the perception that the 76ers have no idea how to beat their rivals. But Irving’s performance and the Celtics’ 13-1 run in overtime showed that Boston still has the advantage and, on this Christmas, possessed the best player on the floor.
“When you’re in that environment, all I think about is 92-92, three minutes left, Game 6 [of a potential playoff series], what are you going to do?” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “If that were the case [Tuesday], we’d be in trouble. The good news is it’s December the 25th and this conversation can’t be had [until] late April, early May.
“You have to beat [the Celtics] with [Irving] on the floor when it matters most.”